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fuzzy dinos

Feathered Dinosaurs Were Probably Fuzzier Than We Thought

A new study reveals details about the feathers of some bird-like dinosaurs.

Samantha Cole

Look at this fluffy dinosaur, with its fuzzy arms and felted face, holding a smirking expression that says, I am so shaggy and pleased about it.

It’s paleoartist Rebecca Gelernter's interpretation of how Anchiornis, a small, bird-like paravian dinosaur from the Jurassic period, looked when it lived some 150 million years ago. It’s challenging what scientists know about feathered dinosaurs from that era.

New research led by the University of Bristol suggests that some feathered dinosaurs, like Anchiornis and Velociraptor, were more fuzzy than sleek: Think fluffy kiwi bird instead of smooth hawk. Rather than the “zipped” feathers of modern birds, its plumage was likely composed of short quills with long, flexible barbs that stuck out in V-shapes. Longer feathers sprouted from its legs, arms, and tail, helping it glide.

The findings are based on Anchiornis fossils discovered in China. Well-preserved fossils of the small, winged dinosaur have been the source of discovery in the past, with laser imaging of soft tissues and analysis of their melanosome structures revealing the color of dinosaurs for the first time in 2010.

“Personally, I think this highlights how we can't simply depict these dinosaurs that are closely related to true birds as fully modern in their bird-like characteristics,” Evan Saitta, a University of Bristol PhD candidate and researcher on the study, told me in an email. “They had feathers like birds, but these would have been more primitive in form.”

In previous years, the idea of feathered dinosaurs has miffed some diehard scaly-dino fans, including the discovery of Yutyrannus huali, or “beautiful feathered tyrant,” in 2012. “Do you really want the megastars of the dinosaurian world displaying colourful yet gaudy feathers and dancing like a demented turkey cock?” paleontologist Mark Wildman wrote at the time. (Well, kind of!)

So, to be scientifically accurate, according to this new research, the raptors in Jurassic Park should have looked like fuzzy, turkey-sized kiwi birds instead of human-sized scaly monsters. Somehow, a pack of downy screeching furballs sounds scarier.